Journeys for Change blog
Andy Powell has approached educational development from many angles. He has spent the last 20 years as CEO of three very different organisations – a charity that develops and delivers services, a trade association that lobbies for improving skills in industry and a well-funded education campaign. Below is a segment of a letter he wrote to his contacts back in the UK, reflecting on lessons he gleaned from interacting with d.light, Goonj, Going to School, and The YP Foundation.
I have come to India to learn. I had a hunch that if we really wanted to reform education in the UK for example we needed to learn from the extraordinary innovation taking place in countries like India, not the other way round. Actually, despite the massive scale of the above projects, my initial reaction is that the success in every case is culturally specific – they could not be replicated in the UK. Nonetheless as I reflect further I detect some common factors, and may be one aspect from which we could learn.
The common ground: without exception the founders (two Westerners and two Indians) were spurred into establishing these organisations as a consequence of the direct and powerful experiences they themselves had witnessed; all had maintained a strong focus on the needs of those they sought to help, continually asking them and involving them in designing the solution. A challenge they all faced was finding the right partners to work with, especially in order to extend their reach; and, linked to the above, an essential component of their brand was integrity and trust.
The lesson? The founders all stated that scale was part of their vision from the very start. How often do our country’s social entrepreneurs start with this in mind? Is this a reason why so many wonderful UK projects seem to have such difficulty in reaching critical mass? And how often do we rigorously explore which partners and distribution channels would best enable us to get there?
When considering these pioneers of social change I can think of no better word to leave you with than the one used in India both for greeting and departing. It means: ‘I bow to the light within.’
Goonj distributes 60 tonnes of clothing every month to the poorest parts of rural India. The organisation collects discarded clothes, processes it through its value chain (which employs a community of hundreds for the sorting, cleaning and tailoring), and distributes it as clothing, sanitary pads or other useful items through a unique community self-development scheme.
The JFC group was struck not only by the immense impact Goonj creates, but also by the fact that one of the leading social initiatives in India is not chained to a concrete business model. Instead, its operations are flexible, fluid and constantly evolving, anchored by the core value of dignity. Nat Sloane of Impetus discusses his Goonj experience, at once confusing and enlightening.
Placing dignity at the cornerstone
Life always holds interesting contrasts. After visiting Goonj, I started reading Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short,” which chronicles the rise and fall of the subprime mortgage market. When I read, “[He is] a man who valued loyalty above all other traits but had no tool to command it except money,” I was struck by the contrast from the afternoon’s visit to Goonj. Anshu must command a lot of loyalty given Goonj’s employee base and the story about the employees’ willingness to forego a month’s wages to be able to buy an electrical generator for the organisation. Clearly, the loyalty Anshu commands doesn’t just come from money, although I am sure that money plays a part for some people.
Anshu is a quietly charismatic man who quickly enthused and inspired me. Yet, quick enthusiasm and inspiration can be ephemeral while loyalty, by definition, cannot be. I do not want to deconstruct the whole organisation, nor can I do that after a two hour visit. Still, I was hugely moved by one particular perspective Anshu articulated. The notion of placing dignity as the cornerstone of all human interaction – especially those between ‘donors’ and ‘recipients’ – hit home for me.
I loved his notion that we never donate clothes; we discard them. By extension, the recipients are not passive, grateful beneficiaries; they are people who solve an urban problem by productively reusing clothing. Within such a simple construct is the essential basis for communicating what dignity is and hopefully for living and breathing it in what Goonj does. This dignity business is a big deal for me as it cuts to the heart of establishing open, honest and constructive relationships. That surely has to be a great cornerstone for building loyalty.
A constantly evolving business model
Goonj’s ‘business model’ inspired and intrigued me in equal measure. How can I not be inspired by the idea of turning clothing for disasters on its head by identifying winter as a disaster and driving clothing recycling as a more proactive process rather than a sporadic reactive event? How can I not be inspired by finding a simple solution to the taboo matter of monthly menstruation through the use of discarded and cut up cloth? How can I not be inspired by the ‘clothing for work’ concept that drives home the concept of dignity throughout the Goonj ‘value chain’? How can I not be inspired by the sight of women sitting in the Goonj equivalent of Dilbert’s cubicle sorting, fixing and packing up clothing? (BTW-the cubicles look a lot more inviting than Dilbert’s.)
What intrigued me was Anshu’s description of Goonj’s evolving model – it seemed organic and alive. Here is an organization that has evolved from its roots of collecting and distributing clothing (very tangible to my simple mind) to doing that as part of a ‘clothing for work’ pact for rural community improvement (also tangible) to serving as some sort of catalyst for development in which neither the clothing nor the pact are in evidence (now getting abstracted for my simple brain) to operating an organization with no obvious succession plans nor much angst about fundraising (way out of my mental terrain now).
Questions and answers
I do not need to make sense of this now but, of course, I want to. I suspect a lot of the loyalty Anshu and Goonj command reflects the values of dignity and a certain organic, Zen-like, ‘be more-in-the-moment’ flexibility to strategy and operations. I find it hard to see how Goonj thrives once Anshu moves on. But should that matter if Goonj is doing good right now? My reactions to my own question pose many more questions for me.
There are almost a billion and a half people who live without access to electricity from an official energy grid. When night falls, many of them rely on kerosene lanterns to provide light for cooking, studying and working. These lanterns are threats to health and safety, giving off noxious fumes and often causing terrible fires. To address this issue, d.light Design has developed a line of affordable solar powered lanterns and seeks to touch 50 million lives by 2015.
In this blog post, Kate Welch, Chief Executive of Acumen Trust in the UK, puts d.light’s celebrated social business model to the test.
d.light Energy Private Limited says it all. This is a design led enterprise which will undoubtedly bring a new solution to the problems of lack of electricity in many areas of India. But is it a social enterprise?
Test 1: Is it a trading company?
This is definitely the case. d.light currently has two solar powered portable lights, the S250 priced at $32 and the S10 at $11. Both are robust designs with well thought through solutions to charging, carrying, and ways of using the light. The products are appealing but the costs are high for the target market. Based on, possibly questionable, costs for kerosene, the S250 has a payback time of one year with the S10 giving a return to the customer after 4 months. The challenge is in reaching a reasonable proportion of the 1.6 billion people the product is designed for and persuading them to pay a fairly high price when money is scarce. Based on reaching 5 people per light we were given a figure of 2.5 million people reached so far so, although there have been a lot of sales, there is a long way to go! The company has major investors from both the social investment and venture capital worlds but has yet to make a profit.
Test 2: Does the business address a social and/or an environmental issue?
The answer again is yes. The time spent by one of the founders Sam Goldman in a rural village seeing the danger posed by kerosene lamps and the poor quality of light produced was one of the drivers to design a product that would bring electricity for individual use to extend the working, studying or leisure time. The impact on individual lives is huge and could change life in a village completely. d.light talk about how people have to be convinced of the benefits often taking a long time to build up trust in the product. If the company says it has a six month guarantee they will watch the light owned by the preacher for a full six months just to see if it will last that long. Converting a warm lead into a sale is going to be a lengthy business if every potential customer tests the product in the same way. The design concept extends through the distribution with the creative use of partners with local networks and trust already in place. The vision of reaching 50 million people by 2015 is challenging but the impact could be enormous.
Test 3: How will profits be used?
That question was asked by many of us and has yet to be answered. The founders and senior team own shares in the company, the venture capitalists who have invested will be looking for their exit. There was no indication that all or even some part of the profits when made will be used to further address the social issues. The team running d.light are well-qualified and experienced in consumer products and their marketing. They are paid at rates that have enabled them to leave well-paid jobs in large corporate to join d.light. A commitment to put 50% or more of the profit to address a related social issue would transform d.light into a true social enterprise.
Potential competition and points of tension
It was good to see a business that has a well-designed product that can solve social issues. However they have all the challenges of working in a crowded marketplace. d.light is very vulnerable to competition from a much cheaper product. They manufacture in China themselves and the potential for a copycat product priced at say $3 is high. This could destroy trust in their brand which is built on quality and would probably reach a wider market through existing distribution channels more quickly than the partner network being developed by d.light. They have also not yet experienced any tensions in the board which will be sure to come when the balance between social and financial return is being tested.
I wish the team every success but also challenge them to ask themselves what more good they could do with the profits they will make.
Follow this journey as a group of global leaders connect and collaborate with some of India's most innovative social entrepreneurs. From the 11th to 19th of February, they'll travel to Delhi and Rajasthan, meeting the changemakers behind organisations that are transforming India, such as D.Light Design, Goonj, Youth Parliament, Source for Change and Jaipur Foot.
Our second journey next year will take place from the 11th to 19th of November, 2011.
We'll be exploring social entrepreneurship in two very distinct cities - Hyderabad and Kolkata (Calcutta), both cultural hubs in their own rights. While there, we'll connect with a range of incredible changemakers on-the-ground, sharing learnings, inspiration and good times.
We're looking for a group of insightful leaders from around the world to come share this experience. Might you be one?
We are delighted to launch our completely redesigned website, journeysforchange.org.
Our new site not only looks beautiful (thanks to Monisha at blue beetle studios), it offers you a richer experience with easy access to media, insight into our journeys and perspective from journey alumni.
We want journeysforchange.org to provide you with everything you need. So explore the site, share it with friends and send us your feedback.
November 2010 - Bangaluru (Bangalore) and Mumbai (Bombay)
February 2011- Delhi and Rajasthan
A lot of work goes into the planning of a Journey for Change. Part of that is creating awesome marketing material. This new brochure, expertly designed in collaboration with Blue Beetle Studios, gives insight into what the Journeys experience is all about.
We're happy to announce that Biplab Das has joined our Advisory Group.
Fresh back from the recent November 2009 India social entrepreneurship journey, Biplab brings with him 30+ years of investment banking experience in locations as far flung as the US, Hong Kong, Germany and Switzerland. He is currently a Director at Credit Suisse focusing on development and worldwide distribution of sustainable investment products.
Biplab hails from Kolkata and currently lives in Zurich.
You can read his full bio on our Team page.
We're delighted to announce Cynthia Koenig of Hippo Water as the winner of our Justmeans contest to win a place on our February 2010 India social entrepreneurship Journey.
With so many high quality entries, it was always going to be a tough job picking a winner. However, the judges felt that Cynthia stood out in terms of her leadership experience, her achievements with Hippo Water and her rationale for how she could use the journey to increase her social impact in the world. This, together with the number of votes she got and the quality of the supporting comments on her entry pipped her into first place.
The judges also wanted to acknowledge all the other entrants for the high quality of your entries and for your time and effort in taking part. We hope many of you will take part in the Journeys for Change experience in the future.
Finally, congratulations again Cynthia - we're looking forward to spending time with you in Bangalore and Mumbai next year!
Today kicks off the November 2009 India Social Entrepreneurship Journey. We’ll be taking a group of senior leaders from some of the world’s top private, public and civil society organisations (including Credit Suisse, Swedbank, BonnVentures & the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation) in Europe, the US and China to meet some of India’s most inspiring social entrepreneurs. As the group travels through Kolkata and Hyderabad, participants will connect to the people creating systemic change in this country - learning from them while offering perspective on addressing the key challenges they face.
The group will be sharing their experiences with you through just about every online avenue possible, like:
- twitter (@journeys4change)
- flickr (@journeysforchange)
- youtube (@journeysforchange)
- vimeo (@journeysforchange)
Join us on what promises to be an unforgettable adventure.
- Vinay NairExecutive DirectorJPMorgan"I can’t speak highly enough of the India Social Entrepreneurship Journey"
"I took great inspiration from meeting people with a similar personal and/or professional background to me, now using their skills and passion to make sustainable and large-scale impact. It really was a prodigious experience."